I first learned how to make beef jerky in an oven. I progressed to a dehydrator because cleaning the marinade off the oven was annoying. Now I have a charcoal smoker and it is by far better than the first two methods. There are some tricks to doing this. Here is what I’ve learned.
Choosing the meat: Any meat can be smoked but not all of it is likely to be preserved very long. I’ve found that lean cuts of beef do well, salmon is a delight and smoking gives chicken an unusual flavor. It depends mostly on your dietary needs as well as likes and dislikes.
Slicing: Unless you are planning the food to be an entre, it’s best to have thin slices of meat. It will dry faster and more evenly. Thick cuts may not be completely smoked and could go bad faster than the thin cuts. For this, I often ask the butcher to slice the meat for me. I may have to do more cutting at home, but it takes a lot of time out of the issue and it helps keep the meat uniform in size.
Marinade: This is another area of preference, but if you’re planning to preserve the meat for a while, it will take salt. We like to use a combination of steak sauce, Worcestershire sauce, soy sauce, a little liquid smoke and ketchup. Dry seasonings depend greatly on mood plus what’s on hand. We like garlic, chili powder and occasionally cayenne.
Charcoal: Don’t go for the cheap brand unless you are very familiar with it. You’ll need the coals to be smoky for a couple of hours, so finding a long burning charcoal is necessary. We usually use Kingsford for this purpose.
Wood Chips: There are two types of wood chips sold in local supermarkets, but barbecue stores sell a wider variety. The chips need to be soaked for an hour or more. The wet wood will help make the smoke.
Starting the Fire: Unless you like your food to taste like lighter fluid, it might be wise to consider a different way of starting the fire. There are a couple of ways to do it; one is to use a charcoal chimney, available at many stores that carry barbecue supplies. However, seasoned (as in aged) hard woods are a lot better. We use cherry, but there are many types. The type of wood does change the flavor of the meat, so play around until you find what you like.
Time: In the smoker, it takes a couple of hours to smoke most things, especially thick stuff. Check every half hour or so for temperature and to see if it’s still producing smoke. If it isn’t, you may need to either add more charcoal or more wood chips.
Storage: Whether I think it’s preserved enough by smoke or not, I store all of my smoked meat in either the refrigerator or the freezer. I don’t want to find out the hard way that it’s gone bad, nor do I like the idea that my efforts have been wasted. Freezer bags work well for most smoked foods.
Using a smoker can take a boring food item and give it a new flavor. It can also make snacks that are healthier than manufactured products. It takes time and effort, but it is worth it.